Human STAP cells – Troubling Possibilities

Soon after the publication of this paper that adult mouse cells could be reprogrammed into embryonic-like stem cells simply by exposing them to acidic environments or other stresses , Charles Vacanti at Harvard Medical School has reported that he and his colleagues have demonstrated that this procedure works with human cells.

STAP cells or stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency cells were derived by Vacanti and his Japanese collaborators last year. These new findings show that adult cells can be reprogrammed into embryonic-like stem cells without genetic engineering. However, this technique worked well in mouse cells, but it was not clear that it would work with human adult cells.

Vacanti and others shocked the world when they published their paper in the journal Nature earlier this year when they announced that adult cells in mice could be reprogrammed through exposure to stresses and proper culture conditions.

Now Vacanti has made good on his promise to test his protocol on human adult cells. In the photo below, provided by Vacanti, human adult cells were reprogrammed to a pluripotent state by exposing them to stresses, followed by growth in culture under specific conditions.

Human STAP cells
Human STAP cells

“If they can do this in human cells, it changes everything, said Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technologies in Marlborough, Massachusetts. Such a procedure promises cheaper, faster, and potentially more flexible cells for regenerative medicine, cancer therapy and cell and tissue cloning.

Vacanti and his colleagues say they have taken human fibroblast cells and tested several environmental stressors on them to recreate human STAP cells. He will not presently disclose which particular stressors were applied, he says the resulting cells appear similar in form to the mouse STAP cells. His team is in the process of testing to see just how stem-cell-like these cells are.

According to Vacanti, the human cells took about a week to resemble STAP cells, and formed spherical clusters just like their mouse counterparts. Vacanti and his Harvard colleague Koji Kojima emphasized that these results are only preliminary and further analysis and validation is required.

Bioethical problems potentially emerge with STAP cells despite their obvious potential. The mouse cells that were derived and characterized by Vacanti’s group and his collaborators were capable of making placenta as well as adult cell types. This is different from embryonic stem cells, which can potentially form all adult cell types, but typically do not form placenta. Embryonic stem cells, therefore, are pluripotent, which means that they can form all adult cell types. However, the mouse STAP cells can form all embryonic and adult cell types and are, therefore, totipotent. Mouse STAP cells could form an entirely new mouse. While it is now clear if human STAP cells, if they in fact exist, have this capability, but if they do, they could potentially lead to human cloning.

Sally Cowley, who heads the James Martin Stem Cell Facility at the University of Oxford, said of Vacanti’s present experiments: “Even if these are STAP cells they may not necessarily have the same potential as mouse ones – they may not have the totipotency – which is one of the most interesting features of the mouse cells.”

However the only cells known to be naturally totipotent are in embryos that have only undergone the first couple of cell divisions immediately after fertilization. According to Cowley, any research that utilizes totipotent cells would have to be under very strict regulatory surveillance. “It would actually be ideal if the human cells could be pluripotent and not totipotent – it would make everyone’s life a lot easier,” she opined.

Cowley continued: “However, the whole idea that adult cells are so plastic is incredibly fascinating,” she says. “Using stem cells has been technically incredibly challenging up to now and if this is feasible in human cells it would make working with them cheaper, faster and technically a lot more feasible.”

This is all true, but Robert Lanza from Advanced Cell Technology in Marlborough, Massachusetts, a scientist with whom I have often deeply disagreed, noted: “The word totipotent brings up all kinds of issues,” says Robert Lanza of Advanced Cell Technology in Marlborough, Massachusetts. “If these cells are truly totipotent, and they are reproducible in humans then they can implant in a uterus and have the potential to be turned into a human being. At that point you’re entering into a right-to-life quagmire”

A quagmire indeed, for Vacanti has already talked about using these STAP cells to clone human embryos. Think of it: the creation of very young human beings just for the purpose of ripping them apart and using their cells for research or medicine. Would we allow this if the embryo were older; say the age of a toddler? No we would rightly condemn it as murder, but because the embryo is very young, that somehow counts against it. This is little more than morally grading the embryo according to astrology.

Therefore, whole Vacanti’s experiments are exciting and novel, they hold chilling possibilities. Lanza is right, and it is doubtful that scientists would show the same deference or sensitivities to the moral exigencies he has shown.

Misrepresentation of the Embryological Facts of Cloning by Reporters

Wesley Smith at National Review Online has been keeping tabs on the reporting of the Cell paper by Shoukhrat Miltalipov from the Oregon Health and Science University. The misrepresentation has been extensive but it’s not really all that surprising given the ignorance and lack of clear thinking on this issue. Nevertheless, Smith has kept up his yeoman’s work, cataloging the factual errors for reporters in multiple publications.

For his first example, see here, where Loren Grush on Fox wrote:

Through a common laboratory method known as somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT), ONPRC scientists, along with researchers at Oregon Health & Science University, essentially swapped the genetic codes of an unfertilized egg and a human skin cell to create their new embryonic stem cells…The combination of the egg’s cytoplasm and the skin cell’s nucleus eventually grows and develops into the embryonic stem cell.

Grush, as Smith points out, is quite wrong. Introducing a nucleus from a body cell into the unfertilized egg and inducing it does not turn the egg into embryonic stem cells, but turns it into a zygote. The zygote them undergoes cleavage (cell division) until it reaches the early/mid blastocyst stage 5-6 days later, then immunosurgery is used to isolated the inner cell mass cells, after which they are cultured. Somatic cell nuclear transfer is a stand-in for fertilization. It produces an embryo and all the redefinition in the world will not change that.

Next comes my favorite newspaper, the Wall Street Journal, which normally has decent to pretty good scientific reporting, but this one story from Gautam Naik contains a real howler:

Scientists have used cloning technology to transform human skin cells into embryonic stem cells, an experiment that may revive the controversy over human cloning. The researchers stopped well short of creating a human clone. But they showed, for the first time, that it is possible to create cloned embryonic stem cells that are genetically identical to the person from whom they are derived.

As Smith points out, Miltalipov and others did not stop short of creating a human clone, then explicitly made a cloned human embryo and therefore made a cloned young human being.

Then there is this humdinger from an online Australian news report:

US researchers have reported a breakthrough in stem cell research, describing how they have turned human skin cells into embryonic stem cells for the first time. The method described on Wednesday by Oregon State University scientists in the journal Cell, would not likely be able to create human clones, said Shoukhrat Mitalipov, senior scientist at the Oregon National Primate Research Center. But it is an important step in research because it doesn’t require the use of embryos in creating the type of stem cell capable of transforming into any other type of cell in the body.

Oh my gosh, folks the paper describes the production of cloned embryos expressly for the purpose of dismembering them and destroying them. This “doesn’t require the use of embryos” crap reveals a very basic ignorance of how the experiment was done. See Smith’s excellent post for more details.

Then there is this story from one of my least favorite papers, the LA Times:

Some critics continue to argue that it’s unethical to manipulate the genetic makeup of human eggs even if they’re unfertilized, and others warn about potential harm to egg donors. The biggest ethical issue for the OHSU team, though, is that it artificially created a human embryo, albeit one that was missing the components needed for implantation and development as a fetus.

Come on people! The cloned embryo does not have the components needed to implant because there is no womb into which it can be implanted. Dolly was made the same way. Surely Dolly had the components required to implant.  The problem here is one of will, since these embryos were made to be destroyed. Not capacity. What was done to those embryos was dismemberment. Would we object if they were toddlers?

Just to show that obfuscation is not wholly an American news feature, there is this story from the German newspaper Deutche Welle:

Scientists, for the first time, have cloned embryonic stem cells using reprogrammed adult skin cells, without using human embryos…The process used by Mitalipov is an important step in research because it does not require killing a human embryo–that is, a potential human being–to create transformative stem cells.

As Smith points out, this research made a human embryo that was then killed to make embryonic stem cells. Calling this research humane is to redefine humane to the point of absurdity.

Finally this jewel of blithering ignorance from bioethicist Jonathan Moreno in his column in the Huffington Post:

Despite some confused media reports, the Oregon scientists did not clone a human embryo but a blastocyst that lacks some of the cells needed to implant in a uterus.

And you wonder why people like me have lost all faith in American bioethics. As a developmental biologist, this one just grates on me.  A blastocyst has two cell populations; an outer trophectoderm composed of trophoblast cells that will form the placenta and the inner cell mass cells on the inside of the embryo, which will form the embryo proper and a few placental structures. To be a blastocyst is to have the equipment to implant.

To drive the nail into the coffin, Smith quotes the father of embryonic stem cells James Thomson from an MSNBC interview:

See, you are trying to redefine it away…If you create an embryo by nuclear transfer, if you gave it to somebody who didn’t know where it came from, there would be no test you could do on that embryo to say where it came from. It is what it is. By any reasonable definition, at least as some frequency, you are creating an embryo. If you try to redefine it away, you are being disingenuous.

Check out Smith’s posts. They are all worth reading. Maybe the press will learn some embryology, but I doubt it.

Postscript:  Brendan P. Foht writes at the Corner on National Review Online that in 2010 Shoukhrat Mitalipov, the leader of the Oregon cloning team, reported that he had achieved a single pregnancy using cloned monkey embryos that were made with exactly the same technology as was employed with human eggs in his 2013 Cell paper.  The fetus developed long enough to have a heartbeat detectable through ultrasound. Although the pregnancy failed after 81 days (about half the normal gestation period for that species), the fact that a pregnancy would develop so far indicates that reproductive cloning of primates is in principle possible.  This definitively shows that all this talk about the embryos made in Mitalipov’s lab not being able to implant is pure drek.

Violence Against Women and Sex Selection Abortion

Wesley Smith at NRO has an interesting article about the vicious gang-rape in India and the possibility that sex-selection abortion might have played a role in it. Sex selection abortions have been the norm in China and India for a few decades. Because of the social pressure to make sons, daughters are often killed before they are born. This in and of itself constitutes are crime against women in the first place, but it has other ramifications and consequences. In societies where men greatly outnumber women, unmarried men commit the majority of the crimes.

From Smith’s post: “Growing evidence suggests that in countries like India and China, where the ratio of men to women is unnaturally high due to the selective abortion of female fetuses and neglect of girl children, the rates of violence towards women increase. “The sex ratio imbalance directly leads to more sex trafficking and bride buying,” says Mara Hvistendahl, author of Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men. A scarce resource is generally considered precious, but the lack of women also leaves many young men without marriage partners. In 2011, the number of cases of women raped rose by 9.2 percent; kidnapping and abductions of women were up 19.4 percent..” This is a quote from a Time essay by Erika Christakis.

This will hopefully wake us up to unintended consequences of snuffing out human lives before they are born.